It is not easy to file a sexual harassment claim in Congress.
On her show “Kasie DC” on Sunday, MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt broke down the complaint-filing process, which she described as “very convoluted,” and explained why many sexual harassment victims in Congress don’t come forward.
By law, a victim has 180 days after an incident to bring a complaint of sexual harassment to the congressional Office of Compliance. As Hunt points out, this “assumes that you are aware that [the office] exists.”
Once the claim is processed, the victim has to go through up to 30 days of counseling and then has 15 days to decide whether to go to mediation. “If you don’t want to go to mediation, then you’re out of options,” Hunt said.
If the victim does choose to move forward with mediation, she added, they will be bound by a confidentiality agreement and will have to continue working with the harasser during this time.
“You continue to go to work every day and, to be clear, during this time, there’s typically no investigation or attempt change the workplace environment,” Hunt said. “So you might be seeing this person every day at work.”
Once mediation begins, the harasser is assigned a lawyer paid for with taxpayer money. If the victim and harasser don’t reach a settlement during this time, there is a mandatory 30-day “cooling-off period” before the victim can file a lawsuit. If they reach a settlement, it’s also paid for with taxpayer money and the victim usually has to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
“This agreement prevents you from reporting the act to any ethics committees, prevents you from talking with your co-workers, your friends, your family or your spouse,” Hunt noted.
After numerous sexual assault and harassment survivors shared their experiences through the #MeToo movement, many lawmakers have also come forward with stories of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.
Earlier this month, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said she knew of two current members of Congress ― a Democrat and a Republican ― who had sexually harassed staffers. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) also said that she heard rumors of a current congressman who had exposed himself to a young female staffer. Former Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) told The Associated Press that a congressman who is still serving once approached her on the House floor and said he thought about what it would be like to see her shower.
In an October interview with The Washington Post, Speier said the harassment reporting system is “not a victim-friendly process.” She called it “ridiculous” in an interview on CBS’s “Face The Nation” on Sunday and said it’s a large reason why sexual harassment is so rampant on Capitol Hill.
“I think [the culture of sexual harassment is] worse in part because we have a system in place that allows for the harasser to go unchecked,” Speier said.
The harasser “doesn’t pay for the settlement himself and is never identified,” she noted, adding that the Office of Compliance “has really been an enabler of sexual harassment for these many years, because of the way it’s constructed.”